Dirty Wars: No way to run a military

August 2, 2013

First of all, I’m back. Did you miss me? I’ve spent some of this week at The Alotian Club, watching the Western Amateur. More on that later, but first, there was no room in the newspaper for some of our MovieStyle copy.

Dirty Wars
Grade: 88
Cast: Documentary, with Jeremy Scahill
Director: Rick Rowley
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 90 minutes

dirtywarsWar is necessary and insane, and the divide between average Americans and our military has never been wider. While most Americans had a terrible stake in our 20th-century wars — there was barely a family untouched by World War II, and the Vietnam conflict divided the country like no war since the internecine war between the states. These days a lot of us only see soldiers in airports — the volunteer army is drawn disproportionately from the ranks of the aspiring poor. The military recruits immigrants with a program that allows them to obtain U.S. citizenship in as little as six months.

But while soldiers seem scarce, threats seem to loom everywhere, as the idea of fighting against other organized national forces has become almost quaint. Today the enemy is amorphous and multinational, driven by ideology (or even theology) and the entire world has become a potential battlefield. Without a countervailing superpower, the United States has embarked on a nebulous and open-ended “war on terror” conducted largely in secret.

This is the landscape in which investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, National Security Correspondent of The Nation and author of the best-seller Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, operates. And Dirty Wars, which could be viewed as a companion film to Scahill’s book of the same name, is literally his story. Scahill co-wrote the script, narrates the film, and dominates the proceedings as he globetrots from Afghanistan and Yemen to Somalia and Washington, (and back home to boring Brooklyn) like an alternative weekly James Bond. While he’s not actually the subject of the documentary — which was directed by his friend and collaborator Rick Rowley — his character serves as an audience surrogate, maybe to a distracting extent.

I say “maybe” because, though I have certain qualms about the way Scahill is presented in the film — he’s acting, or at least he’s obviously aware of and playing to the camera — I cannot imagine that a more compelling film could have been made without his character carrying this dramatic payload. And Dirty Wars means to be something more than just another policy documentary lamenting the disconnection between the U.S. government’s rhetoric and reality, it means to be an important and influential movie that a lot of people will actually see.

Besides, Scahill is what he is portraying, and the stories he means to tell are important, especially to people who believe that the so-called “war on terror” has been dragged into the disinfecting sunlight by the hopey, changey cq PMBarack Obama. It’s true things are different now than they were under the administration of George W. Bush — the U.S. military has become more empowered to use unmanned drone strikes with less oversight, and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has been emboldened and had it’s its mission to “fix, find and finish” anything (or anyone) it deems a threat to the U.S. affirmed by the current administration, even when it turns its lethal attention to U.S. citizens (who may not be assassinated without legal consequence, so long as the wetworkcq JR doesn’t occur on U.S. soil).

It seems their plan, Scahill helpfully explains, is to “kill their way to victory.” And their enemy is whoever they say it is, and their venue is where ever they want it to be.

But the film is not a vague list of allegations, it begins in 2010, with Scahill in Afghanistan investigating a series of nighttime raids on remote villages. In Gardez, he meets with locals who show him damning cellphone videos to buttress their claims that U.S. soldiers — the “American Taliban,” in local parlance — killed five innocents, including a U.S.-trained police officer and two pregnant women, then took measures to cover up their crime.

Scahill testifies about this atrocity before the House Judiciary Committee, but no one wants to listen. It’s all just part of the fog of war. Scahill also relates the fairly well-known case of Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born Muslim cleric who was placed on a kill lists in 2010 and killed in Yemen by a missile fired from a drone in 2011.

Dirty Wars is a powerful and unnerving film, but it’s also a skillfully put-together movie (a fine score by the Kronos Quartet is among its virtues) that offers some of the same ancillary satisfactions as a spy thriller. It’s this tension between rabble-rousing and crowd-pleasing that strikes some people as dissonant. And Scahill does have an unfortunate tendency to come off as smug or self-dramatizing (as when he wraps himself in — a probably essential — bullet-proof vest).

But such stylistic fillips seem too trivial to mention given the film’s message. Secrecy and a lack of governmental oversight is not a promising formula for running the world’s most powerful military.

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